The victims of the California boat fire were there for precious family time, birthday celebrations and an adventurous weekend out on the sea
In the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 2, a 75-foot commercial diving boat was wrapping up a Labor Day weekend excursion when it burst into flames off the coast of Santa Cruz Island in California. The 34 people who were sleeping below deck were trapped and killed, while five crew members — the only ones not below deck — survived.
The remnants of the charred Conception were brought to the surface on Thursday, and salvage crews transported the diving boat to an “undisclosed, secure location for further investigation,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a press conference.
Authorities have not yet determined a cause for the fire, but “the investigation into the cause of this disaster will continue for some time to come,” Brown said. He also confirmed that all 34 victims from the deadly fire had been identified and their family members were notified.
Hours earlier, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report finding that all six crew members on the boat were asleep when the massive fire broke out. The news came amid reports that the lack of a “roaming night watchman,” someone who is required to be awake at night in order to alert passengers to incidents such as a fire, could mean that the Conception violated safety rules, according to the Los Angeles Times. (Representatives for Truth Aquatics, which owned the Conception, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)
On Friday, Sept. 6, Brown said that a preliminary examination found that the victims died of smoke inhalation rather than burns, USA Today reported.
Families, friends, and colleagues have spoken out about the lives that were taken too soon while pursuing their passion for diving. Aboard the Conception was a family of five, people celebrating birthdays, high school students, couples seeking adventures, and more.
Glen Fritzler, the owner and operator of Truth Aquatics, said his team is temporarily ceasing operations after the “complete tragedy” on its boat.
“I’m numb,” said Fritzler — whose company has filed a lawsuit to limit victim payouts and has not yet returned PEOPLE’s requests for comment — in a phone interview with Spectrum News 1. “There were a lot of people that were on that boat that I knew personally, people that I had dealt with for decades.”
Below is a list of the 34 victims.
Neal Gustav Baltz, 42, and Patricia Ann Beitzinger, 48
The couple, who lived in Phoenix, both loved the outdoors and taking trips together, Michael Pierce, the viticulture and enology director at Yavapai College, tells PEOPLE.
Neal Baltz, an engineer, studied winemaking and was supposed to be back at class that Tuesday night to present about wines he had recently discovered in Washington State.
“He had plans to stay with some of his friends after class, and they didn’t hear from him,” says Pierce. “That friend texted me and we saw the news article. That’s how we found out.”
Pierce says that Baltz showed “a lot of dedication” by making the hour-and-a-half drive to their campus and had “quite the thirst for knowledge.”
“He wanted to follow his passion,” he adds. “It’s hard work and it’s basically farming. We spend a lot of hours together and it’s outside in the sun. He always made sure that if we had tough days it was a positive atmosphere. He was always goofing around about something.”
Patricia Beitzinger, meanwhile, “was always laughing at something goofy Neal was doing,” Pierce says.
“They were a loving couple,” says Pierce. “Patricia was usually smiling. They were a terrific couple to be around.”
Kristina “Kristy” Finstad, 41
The marine biologist, diving instructor and co-founder of Worldwide Diving Adventures, which chartered the dive boat Conception, has likely “transitioned to be with the good Lord,” her brother Brett Harmeling posted on Facebook.
According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, she ran the company with her husband Dan Chua — and was helping lead the trip.
Family of Five: Evan Michel Quitasol, 37, Nicole Storm Quitasol, 31, Angela Rose Quitasol, 28, Fernisa Sison, 57, and Michael Quitasol, 62
The weekend should have been a celebration of Michael Quitasol’s 63rd birthday, with his wife Fernisa Sison, 57, and his three children Evan Michel, 37, Nicole, 31 and Angela Rose, 28, from his previous marriage to Susana Solana Rosas.
Instead, five members of a close-knit blended Stockton, California family died, family members confirm to PEOPLE.
Eldest daughter Evan Michel was a nurse working in the emergency department of Quality Health St. Joseph Medical Center in Stockton. Sison was a nurse practitioner and chronic conditions specialist at Kaiser Permanente in Modesto, where Michael also worked as a nurse.
Angela was a science teacher at Sierra Middle School in Stockton, and Nicole, who lived in San Diego, worked at Nicky Rottens Bar and Burger Joint in Coronado.
“Our whole family were certified divers,” Sison’s son Dominic Selga, 37, who is also a nurse at St. Joseph, tells PEOPLE. “We’d go on family trips diving. It’s been almost 10 years since we started.”
“Michael, her husband, it was one of his passions and wanted to start doing it again when they got together. They got certification and so did all their children.”
On Aug. 17, the Quitasol sisters got together for the marriage of their sister Evita Rosas Olson, with Angela Rose serving as maid of honor and Nicole stepping in as a bridesmaid.
“Angela was one of the warmest, most loving people I’ve ever met,” Olson tells PEOPLE. “Angela loved to sing, loved science and loved the ocean. The ocean called her home.”
Angela had played roller derby with the Port City Roller Girls in Stockton, where she skated under the name Hermione Danger, the team said on Facebook.
Selga said the outpouring of fond memories by Angela’s students and former students has been comforting.
“She was so fun, always so bubbly,” Selga says. “She always had colorful hair, smiling, just the best personality. She would talk to you forever.”
Selga and Evan Michel also worked at the same hospital.
“I heard from one of the new nurses who worked with her in intensive care and he said she set the foundation of how he gives his nursing care,” Selga says. “Everybody just loved her. She was so sweet to my kids. She was a traveler who loved life.”
Nicole’s boss Bryn Andrew describes Nicole to PEOPLE as an adventurous person who loved the ocean and the beach, spent time with her golden retriever Peanut Butter, and enjoyed all water sports. He also notes how reliable and personable she was.
“We live in a beach town so I organized a beach clean-up, which Nicole did all the time. I asked everyone at the restaurant to participate and the only one who showed up was Nicole and Peanut Butter,” he recalls to PEOPLE. “Peanut Butter ran up to me and jumped up and kissed me. I told Nicole I thought I’d be the only one here, and she said she would never desert me,” he continues. “And we cleaned up the beach for three hours.”
Rosas wrote on her Facebook page: “I know our children don’t belong to us. As parents, we have plans for their life. They had surpassed my expectations I had for them. I was so proud of them and their accomplishments. They each knew it, too. My three girls were very happy with their lives. They each had found their loves, were well established in their communities with the best part of life ahead of them.”
Alexandra “Allie” Kurtz, 26
Allie Kurtz’s mother, Cherie McDonough, told reporters she was a go-getter. “She was following her dream,” said McDonough. “She loved it here. She loved the boat. She loved diving. She could do anything she wanted.”
According to CNN Wire, McDonough began to sob and collapsed to the ground when she saw the photo of her daughter at the memorial.
The message below the photo reportedly said: “I love you Allie — and you know I always will. I’ll miss you forever.”
Raymond “Scott” Chan, 59, and Kendra Chan, 26
Scott Chan and his daughter Kendra were avid divers who bonded over their shared love of the ocean.
“He was a real family man who loved to dive with his daughter and his wife,” his cousin Eugenie Chan tells PEOPLE. “He was also a devoted teacher and took great joy in being the serious ‘Mr. Chan’ who also brought flying pigs in to show off a physics principle. He used to be an engineer, but he loved being a teacher.”
The Stanford grad and Los Altos, California resident worked as an engineer for Tandem Computers, Silicon Graphics and Juniper Networks, retiring early to pursue a career in teaching and volunteering. He taught AP physics at American High School in Fremont. He and his wife, Vicki Moore, have two children, Kendra, a marine biologist who was living in Ventura at the time, and Kevin, who lives in Los Angeles.
Eugenie tells PEOPLE that the family all loved to dive and were “big environmentalists.”
“It’s just a shock to think they are not going to be doing this,” she adds. “And Kendra. So young, so good, so eager to do things. She was an avid environmentalist and wanted to do good. And now…”
Kendra was a recent graduate of U.C. Davis. On the school’s website Chancellor Gary S. May issued this statement:
“Kendra’s fascination with marine ecology will continue to inspire everyone she touched. She pursued her scientific curiosity with great zest at UC Davis, from working at our Bodega Marine Lab for two summers to studying biodiversity in the Stachowicz Lab. As the co-president of Davis SEEDS, she supported fellow students in making the transition from college to career. Kendra made her mark at UC Davis. We are grateful for her contributions to our campus community and her dedication to creating a healthier planet. We will remember her.”
In a video, Kendra talked about her love of diving and how her parents had inspired her.
Moore told KTVU that “you don’t expect to have a child that dies before you.”
“I can barely talk about my husband, but frankly, it’s even harder when it’s your own child,” said Moore, who was married to Raymond for 35 years and dropped him off at the dock on Friday night for the diving trip.
Steven Salika, 55, Tia Salika-Adamic, 17, and Carol Diana Adamic, 60
The Salika family had embarked on the diving expedition to celebrate Tia’s birthday, according to Margo Peyton, the president of Kids Sea Camps (KSC), where Tia started taking scuba diving lessons from the time she was 6.
“They were celebrating Tia’s birthday just the way Tia wanted: Diving,” Peyton tells PEOPLE. “You know the name of the boat was Conception, and Tia was celebrating that. It was such a great tragedy; this is not a common thing.”
“This family loved diving,” Peyton continues. “How happy they are as a family, underwater, learning about corals and fish.”
The family was also with Tia’s classmate, Berenice Felipe. Peyton says the duo was inseparable, adding that both girls were “very sweet” and “very intelligent coral restoration divers.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, Salika, who worked as a senior manager at Apple for three decades, was remembered by his former employers as a positive force in the company.
“Steve was a 30-year Apple veteran whose energy and enthusiasm touched so many people across our company throughout his career,” says Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president of retail + people. “He met his wife at Apple and was aboard with her and their daughter.”
Both Tia and Felipe attended Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, NBC News reports.
In a statement on Facebook, school officials wrote that the community is “saddened by the tragic sinking of the diving vessel Conception over the weekend. While this was not a school sponsored trip, our hearts and thoughts are with the families of the victims and those yet missing, particularly those of our students and parents on board. Thank you to the Santa Cruz community and others who have reached out to us to offer condolences and support for our school.”
Berenice Felipe Alvarez, 16
Bright and vivacious, Berenice Felipe Alvarez had overcome a lot in her 16 years. Her parents, Yadira Alvarez and Federico Felipe Morales, had come from Mexico seeking a better life.
Born in Los Angeles, Berenice moved to Watsonville with her family as an infant. Her father was killed after being hit in a crosswalk when Berenice was just 7. She was raised by her widowed mother and eventually went to Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz. There she became best friends with Tia Salika, who brought her along on the family’s adventures.
“Tia’s best friend was Berenice and she was certified to dive last year,” Margo Peyton, owner of Kids Sea Camp, tells PEOPLE. “Berenice was very sweet, they both were, and they were very intelligent and environmentally savvy.”
The Santa Cruz community, including Pacific Collegiate School, is also mourning Berenice.
Maria Reitano, head of the school, told KABC that she expected it to be “a difficult day” after news of the fire came out, adding, “I think young people, in particular, have a variety of ways of responding to crisis situations. So we’re prepared for whatever they bring to school this morning.”
Friends of the student told KEYT that Berenice was the last of the victims to be recovered from the wreckage.
Charles McIlvain, 44
Visual effects designer Charles McIlvain — known for his work on films such as Spider-Man and Green Lantern, according to IMDB — was with his good friend Marybeth Guiney aboard the Conception.
“His laugh was the greatest and his smile could light up the dark,” his family said in a statement, the Associated Press reported. “He embraced life with exceptional joy, openness and humor, and all who knew him felt that warmth.”
The Malibu Divers also paid tribute on Facebook to both McIlvain and Guiney.
“All of us are devastated by the Conception dive boat tragedy,” they wrote. “We’d like to honor Charles McIlvain and Marybeth Guiney by asking you to tell a story about a dive adventure or (anecdote) you had with them. Please share, I know it will help us all.”
The Sea Shepard Conversation Society gave their condolences to his wife Jasmine, who was not with him on the trip.
“Sea Shepherd is one big family and when one of our own suffers from a tragic loss each and every one of us agonizes along with them,” they wrote on Facebook. “Our long time and valued photographer suffered the loss of her husband and best friend in a tragic accident this weekend. Jasmine, in your time of need, please know that you have an entire family of fellow Sea Shepherd brothers and sisters who are sending you good thoughts and we are here for you for anything you need.”
Marybeth Guiney, 51
For Marybeth Guiney, who lived Santa Monica, California, diving started off as a hobby but “turned into a passion,” Santa Monica attorney Perry Roshan-Zamir tells PEOPLE. “She was constantly thinking about her next diving trip. I remember we were sharing pictures one night sitting on board the boat out in the Solomon Islands, sharing stories. She was super excited about everything she’d seen down there underwater and wanted to share that.”
Everything around her involved water, adds Roshan-Zamir.
“All of her social connections and passions, in some form. She was definitely a water person — like a lot of us are — and I don’t mean that in a Zodiac way. She loved the ocean and wanted to do what she could to protect that environment,” he says.
According to Roshan-Zamir, she had no commitments for the long weekend, so she said to her neighbor, and fellow victim, Charles Mcllvain, “Let’s go diving.”
Guiney — a sales director, according to The Daily Breeze — once worked for The New England Patriots, which released a statement following her death, NBC News stations in Boston and Los Angeles reported.
“The New England Patriots organization is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Marybeth Guiney. We send our sincerest sympathies to her family and all who mourn Marybeth’s loss,” the team said.
Lisa Fiedler, 52
Lisa Fiedler texted her mother, Nancy Fiedler, just hours before she died, saying, “I’m having a great time, beautiful spot,” Nancy told ABC News affiliate KGO.
Nancy added that she hopes Lisa, who was a hairdresser in Mill Valley, died peacefully in her sleep.
“Everybody loved her. She was a kind, gentle person. She was a naturalist, she loved nature,” she said. “She loved the water. She was a Pisces and she said, ‘I think I’m part fish.’ ”
Daniel Garcia, 46
Daniel Garcia, who was with his girlfriend Yulia Krashennaya, “was as passionate about his job at Apple as he was about his love of diving,” said Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president of retail and people at Apple.
Yulia Krashennaya, 40
Yulia Krashennaya lived with her boyfriend Daniel Garcia, according to KABC.
“I feel like they were part of my family,” neighbor Madie Price told the news outlet. “They were very nice people who never gave anyone any problem whatsoever — they added to the neighborhood.”
She added, “I hate that this happened — they have all my sympathy.”
Kristian Takvam, 34
The vice president of engineering at education platform Brilliant, based in San Francisco, was killed with her colleague, Carrie McLaughlin, the company confirmed, according to the SF Chronicle.
In a statement to the LAlist, CEO Sue Khim said: “The loss of Carrie and Kristian is deeply heartbreaking for all of us at Brilliant. Carrie and Kristian were incredible friends and colleagues who brought immense passion, talent, leadership, and warmth, and they will be missed dearly. Our hearts are with their families and friends.”
Caroline McLaughlin, 35
Caroline McLaughlin, of Oakland, was a senior software engineer at Brilliant. She was with her colleague Kristian Takvam on the Conception, the company confirmed to LAlist.
Adrian Dahood-Fritz, 40, and Andrew Fritz, 40
Adrian Dahood-Fritz and her husband Andrew Fritz, who moved to California from Texas in April, took the trip to Santa Cruz Island in order “to see the marine wildlife there,” a family friend told KCRA.
The couple headed west after Dahood-Fritz, a senior environmental scientist for the Ocean Protection Council, got a job working for the state.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a statement regarding the couple.
“We are saddened to learn that Adrian Dahood-Fritz, who worked for the Ocean Protection Council under the California Natural Resources Agency since April as a senior environmental scientist, and her husband Andrew Fritz, were aboard the boat and are presumed dead,” Newsom wrote. “Adrian led the state’s efforts to manage California’s network of marine protected areas, and she cared deeply about the ocean and biodiversity. She embodied marine conservation and was a highly accomplished and respected scientific researcher. Adrian’s passion and energy will be greatly missed.
Vaidehi Campbell, 41
Vaidehi Campbell worked for the Soquel Creek Water District, a local non-profit government agency, for 18 years.
“Vai was a very special person,” a press release from the Soquel Creek Water District read, adding that Campbell, who worked as the district’s communications specialist, “brought immense joy to work every day and was a dear friend to all of us.”
“May we always remember her infectious smile, kind heart, vast knowledge, and adventurous spirit,” the district added. “Vai will forever be our ‘Water Princess.’ ”
“Anyone who has spent just a little time with her has been enchanted by her energy and felt the instant warmth of her friendship,” wrote friend Karen Anderson in a GoFundMe fundraiser to help Campbell’s family. “She had a way of bringing people together, and seized every opportunity to live life to its fullest.”
In a statement provided to PEOPLE by spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason, Campbell’s family celebrated her life:
Vaidehi Campbell Williams died as she lived, on an adventure. Always full of energy and light, Vaidehi was a world traveler who had dear friends on every piece of the globe she touched. Her love of water, the ocean and sea life carried through all aspects of her life.
Vaidehi grew up in Santa Cruz with her mother and sister and surrounded by a wide and loving extended family and community. Her father has always remained a loving part of her life and, in the last few years, they were especially close.
In high school she was a competitive swimmer, played clarinet in the band, and was in school plays.
After attending Scripps College, including a semester studying the water systems in Madagascar, Vaidehi created a career for herself at the Soquel Creek Water District, where she remained for 18 years. Locally, over the years, she sang with Pacific Voices Choir, participated in Leadership Santa Cruz, and was a great fan of Samba Da. Her love of music would find her at weekly beach concerts, Moes Alley dance shows and where ever else friends were playing and dancing. She started attending the Strawberry Music Festival when she was 11 and remained part of that strong community.
Vaidehi is remembered as a resounding echo of light and joy with an enthusiasm for life and friends and family. Her love of good food, good wine, dance, song and travel was contagious.
She was a vivacious, giving, and present friend, known throughout the community as a leader, environmental advocate and teacher, and wonderful wife, mother, daughter, friend, and sister, even always including her younger sister in all of her activities since they were little. She had the amazing gift of making everyone who met her feel a special connection.
Vaidehi married her high school sweetheart, Sarma Williams, after he proposed in front of her whole family at her college graduation, and they have been together for 25 years. They have two amazing children who reflect her joie de vivre and sense of love and adventure.
Donations in memory of Vaidehi Campbell Williams may be sent to CALIFORNIA STRONG, which will be distributed to families who lost members in the Santa Cruz Island Boat Fire.
Kaustubh Nirmal, 33, and Sanjeeri Deopujari, 31
Kaustubh Nirmal, who worked in finance, and Sanjeeri Deopujari, a dentist, were married for two and a half years, according to The Los Angeles Times.
“God took them away from us untimely and unfairly, but even he didn’t have the heart to separate them in death,” Nirmal’s cousin, Rajul Sharma, told the Times, describing them as “the perfect couple.”
Justin Carroll Dignam, 58
Justin Dignam was the founder and CEO of a Southern California payroll company.
In an email, the president of Big Fish Employer Services, which Dignam founded in 2003, said the company had been “shocked and horrified” by the news that Dignam had been onboard the vessel, and that they were “prepared for the worst” while waiting for authorities to identify the victims.
Added sister-in-law Lynne Chandler on Facebook, “This has been the most devastating news ever.”
An avid lover of water polo, Dignam played the sport while studying at the University of Richmond and later worked as the head coach of Wesleyan University’s men’s water polo team, according to his company bio.
“Justin was the kindest, nicest man. He always had a good word, a word of encouragement. He loved water sports, especially water polo,” friend Greg Nolan tells PEOPLE. “He loved being in and around the water. It’s just so sad and awful that this happened. We have lost a very kind soul.”
In 2011, Dignam’s company announced a partnership with USA Water Polo.
“USA Water Polo is heart-broken to learn Justin Dignam was a passenger of the recent boat fire near Santa Cruz Island in California,” USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey tells PEOPLE in a statement. “Justin was a passionate longtime member of the water polo community from his days playing college water polo to his continued involvement in the masters water polo community. His company has served as a proud partner and payroll services provider of USA Water Polo for the better part of the last decade.”
“He was a familiar face at a variety of USA Water Polo events including annual golf tournaments, Hall of Fame inductions and National Team competitions among others,” Ramsey adds. “Just this past July he was on deck passing out medals at JO’s in Irvine, savoring the smiles and encouraging everyone to give it their all — just like he did. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and all those mourning the loss of loved ones following this tragedy.”
Dignam lived in Anaheim California, with his wife Christine and their two children.
Ted Strom, 62
Ted Strom, of Germantown, Tennessee, was an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and a staff physician at the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
When reached by PEOPLE, his wife Maggie Strom referred questions to the PR firm that represents her Memphis-based company Tioga Environmental Consultants.
The firm released this statement on Friday after he was identified by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department as a victim of the Conception fire.
“On behalf of the Strom family, we wanted to share that Dr. Ted Strom died this past weekend in the boat fire during a scuba diving expedition off the coast of Southern California,” said the firm. “The Strom family wants everyone to know that he passed in a place he cherished while doing something he loved. During this very difficult time, the family requests complete privacy.”
The Memphis VA also released a statement on Friday.
“The leadership and staff of the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center are deeply saddened by the loss of Dr. Ted Strom,” the VA said. “His exceptional service to veterans as a staff physician is a testament to the type person that he was. Our thoughts and prayers remain with his family during this time. He will certainly be missed.”
Wei Tan, 26
Wei Tan had just received her Master of Engineering degree from U.C. Berkeley in June and began her new job four months ago as a data scientist with Evidation Health in Santa Barbara.
On Friday, her sister Cheerin Tan posted on Facebook: “Dear friends. It is with great sadness I announce the passing of my beloved little sister Wei Tan. It hurts, it will always hurt, but we will move on.”
Cheerin spoke with Channel News Asia, saying that all their family members were avid divers. Wei got her certification when she was 17 and had been excited about this diving trip.
“It’s at least comforting to know that she was doing something she loved in the last few moments of her life,” Cheerin told CNA.
Sunil Singh Sandhu, 45
Sunil Singh Sandhu moved from his native Singapore to live in the U.S. almost 25 years ago to pursue degrees in Electrical Engineering at Christian Brothers University and Stanford University.
He was working as a silicon photonics senior scientist at the San Francisco-based company Pointcloud Inc. at the time of his death.
His father, Sojit Singh, told The New Paper of Singapore that his mind went blank when he heard the news.
“My whole life is gone. I can never find another boy like him,” Sojit told the paper. “Sunil was a brilliant child who excelled in his studies.”
Sojit told the outlet that his son picked up diving just two months ago.
“I told him to be careful because scuba diving can be a dangerous sport,” Sojit said. “I didn’t know he was going for another trip. I had been trying to persuade him to come back to Singapore.”
Xiang Lin, 45
Xiang Lin was a native of Beijing. After attending Tsinghua University, she moved to the United States to earn a master’s degree in computer science at Brown University.
The degree led to engineer and program manager roles at major companies like Apple and Microsoft, her family told the Los Angeles Times. Most recently, Lin was researching artificial intelligence as a partner at Acorn Summit Ventures, a private equity and venture capital firm in the Bay Area.
“Her generosity and charisma made her many friends who remember and dearly miss her,” her family — which includes an older brother, mother and father — told the Times. “She was warm, loving, athletic, courageous, intelligent, funny; her curiosity and passion have impacted and inspired many whom she came into contact with throughout her life.”
Lin was also a nature lover who enjoyed hiking Mission Peak in Fremont, California, as well as spending time wind surfing and scuba diving.
Juha Pekka Ahopelto, 50
Juha Pekka Ahopelto was from Sunnyvale.
Yuko Hatano, 39
Yuko Hatano was from San Jose.